Q: Since early 2009 you have interviewed dozens of CEOs for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the Times' Sunday Business section. In talking to these business leaders, what has surprised you most?
A: For investors and the public, CEOs are always supposed to have answers, and successful ones are celebrated for their ability to see around corners. But in my interviews with more than 100 leaders, I learned that they consider their most important role within their organizations is asking the right questions. They recognize that they can't have all the answers and that the right questions will pull their teams together and help figure out important new strategic directions. The leaders also struck me as very quick and eager students-they can absorb a lot of information in a hurry and can then turn around and teach it to others. I've come to think that CEO also stands for chief education officer.
Q: In your book based on these interviews, "The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons From CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed," you point to five essentials for success: passionate curiosity, battle-hardened confidence, team smarts, a simple mindset and fearlessness. If you had to rank these five, which would be No. 1?
A: Great question. If I had to choose one, it would be passionate curiosity-the term I use in my book to describe a deep sense of engagement with the world. Passionately curious leaders are interested in people and their stories, and they're curious about how things work and how they can be made to work better. I like the phrase because it is more than the sum of its parts-we've all met people who are passionate but not necessarily curious, and we've met people who are curious but not necessarily passionate.
Q: You interviewed Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox Corp., one of Rochester's top employers. She talks about trying to overcome the company's "terminal niceness." How much control do CEOs have over a company's culture?
A: A tremendous amount. Culture really is set at the top, and not just through speeches and posters on the wall about mission and values. In every gesture, every interaction, every memo they write, CEOs set culture by signaling what's important to them and how they want people to interact with one another. And whom do they promote and why? What are the adjectives they use to describe that person, which shows the behavior they reward? CEOs also told me they can often feel overwhelmed by how everything they do and say is so carefully scrutinized. Linda Hudson, the CEO of BAE Systems, told me a memorable story about how she wore a scarf tied a certain way on the first day after a big promotion, and then noticed many other women in the company were wearing similar scarves the very next day. But the CEOs also learn through experience to use this fact of life of their jobs to their advantage, as a kind of megaphone for communicating to their staffs.
Q: You will be speaking at the Ad Council of Rochester's annual luncheon Friday. When businesspeople get to turn the tables and ask you questions, what do they most want to know?
A: I'm often asked which Corner Office interview was my favorite. I've also had interesting conversations about whether the five qualities described in my book, which help explain why CEOs rise to the top, can be learned or whether people are born with them. I always look forward to the question-and-answer sessions when I speak, because people always ask great questions about the universal themes of leadership, management and what it takes to succeed.
More information on the annual luncheon is available at www.adcouncilroch.org/events/spring-luncheon.
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